A Gen-X Perspective on Our Nation's Decline

After growing up in a decade of gas lines, recession, Watergate, withdrawal from Vietnam, and the Iranian hostage crisis, our eyes came into full focus in the second decade of our youth, the 1980s.

Life looked good.  We were presented an optimistic vision of America, and we enjoyed the comforts of our parents' success, enabled by generations before them.  We were privileged to come of age during those halcyon years.

We really did not understand what it meant to work, suffer, or sacrifice.

Between 1980 and 1988, our GDP growth went from negative 0.3% to 4.1%, unemployment dropped from 7.1% to 5.5%, and inflation fell from 13.5% to 4.1%.  As Ronald Reagan reduced the marginal tax rate from a high of 70% to 28%, our economy added 21 million new jobs.  After the malaise of the previous twenty years, America was back, standing tall and strong.

We grew up expecting to surpass our parents in economic success.  We had no doubt about America's bright future; Reagan told us that a new day was dawning, and we believed it.

The forces that convulsed this nation in our very early youth seemed to have receded, leaving behind few traces.  We had no consciousness of the radical ideas that had captivated the previous decades.  The counter-culture of the 1960s and early '70s was an antediluvian fantasy to us.  

But these forces did not simply evaporate from society with the Reagan revolution.  They merely fell back in a tactical retreat, studying the traditional America that had been labeled the enemy.  They built their revetments and waited patiently to make a counterattack.

In the 1990s, as we headed out into the world, we continued to believe that success would come as a matter of course.  We went to college and scarcely noticed that what was being delivered to us was not a path to traditional America, as promised by Reagan, but something different.

The classical Western college curriculum was being substituted with a new one focused upon reinventing our understanding of America and its place in the world.  Colleges generally were turned into indoctrination centers for every left-wing, progressive, and anti-American ideal that academia could conjure.  This new paradigm followed us into the workforce as "diversity," "sensitivity," and political correctness supplanted merit as the predictors of success.  This was the counter-culture's comeback, and we were its conscripts.

But we paid no mind.

We were too busy partying, going to rock concerts, following sports, and generally trying to prolong our childhoods to notice, or care.

Perhaps it was this inward focus and fixation with instant gratification that prevented us from seeing the change in America.  Or perhaps it was the naiveté we had from coming of age in a simpler time.

Regardless, as we now slide into our middle-age years, things are different.  That promise of a bright future for America seems to be vanishing before our very eyes.

Comedian Bill Maher recently proposed a mock pledge for presidential candidates.  "You must tell voters the simple truth: that America's best days are behind us, but that you will help manage our inevitable decline and do your best to see that we fall as gracefully as possible and really stick the landing."  Though venomous and cynical, Maher is simply reflecting the ugly reality of our nation's present condition.

Unemployment is now over 9%, and in economic growth we are faltering, ranked 117th globally behind Morocco, Cameroon, and Albania.  Our credit, for the first time in the nation's history, has been downgraded, and it appears all but certain that the dollar will lose its status as the world's reserve currency within this decade.  The federal deficit in Reagan's final year in office was 2.9% of GDP.  It is now more than three times that size, and our national debt is 100% of our GDP at a staggering 11 trillion dollars.

In our lifetime, America has gone from superpower to fading glory.  We were once inspired by Reagan's "these are the boys of Pointe du Hoc" speech; we now cringe as Obama speaks ineptly about Navy "corpse-men."  We were raised to believe in patriotism and love of country, and now our president travels the world bowing to foreign sovereigns and apologizing for our nation's misdeeds.

Our generation uniquely straddles this divide, living a life demarked by such optimism and faith in our youth, and then such anger and regret in our later years.  

We are to the Facebook and Twitter generation what the Baby-Boomer generation was to us.

And what have we done to distinguish ourselves?

Every generation defines itself in its young adulthood. 

The "Greatest Generation" fought WWII; the Boomers had Vietnam and civil rights.  Previous Americans fought in WWI, endured the Great Depression, pioneered the American West, and established our country.

Alexander the Great conquered the known world by the age of thirty-three.  Generals George McClellan and Stonewall Jackson led armies in battle and were etched in this nation's history before the age of forty.  Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics at the age of thirty-six.

But we, the beer-bong generation, have done little.

We fought for nothing, rebelled against nothing.  We have been bloodless, sarcastic, and dispassionate.

We go to work each day ready to follow orders, and though we are proud of our salaries and possessions, we invent, create, or establish nothing.  Instead, we chase the ever-diminishing ghost of our promised good life.

Yet this is not to say that we caused the decline.  We did not.

We are not the leaders of the ideological movement driving this nation to its present state of dissolution, but we are happy to be its middle managers.  We do the stubby pencil-work.   

The activist movements of years past have degenerated over the course of our lifetime to the infantile, nihilistic, and venal cult of "Occupy Wall Street"; some of us join in, but most shrug with indifference.  "Maybe they have a point," we ponder.

We are simply the generation that let history wash right over us.

But for now, we should raise our glass in memory of the America that we once knew, if ever so briefly, in our youth. 

It's the least we can do.

Dean Malik is an Iraq War veteran and former prosecutor in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, currently serving in support of Operation Enduring Freedom at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy. Dean.Malik@eu.navy.mil